An in vitro model system for the experimental study of renal epithelial differentiation is described. Fetal murine metanephric tissue consisting of nephrogenic blastema and branched ureteric bud is isolated following 24-36 h of natural embryonic inductive interaction (13 +/- 0.4 days gestation) and cultured as an intact organ in a Trowell-type assembly. During 120 h of organ culture incubation in completely defined serum-free medium, advanced organotypic proximal tubular and glomerular epithelial differentiation proceed in the absence of vascularization, perfusion, and urine production. The system thus experimentally separates the processes of three-dimensional organ growth and post-induction renal epithelial differentiation from glomerular filtration, flow-related phenomena, endothelial or mesangial cell interactions, and the effects of growth factors or transport substrates present in mammalian serum or urine. Studies to date in the model system have defined the growth factor requirements of epithelial growth and differentiation and have demonstrated that specific hormonally induced alterations in tubular epithelial cell metabolism and function may lead to specific patterns of tubular maldevelopment. Whole organ metanephric organ culture is thus a valuable in vitro model system for future investigations into the complex processes of normal and abnormal renal epithelial differentiation.